“You might find that when Super League starts, the Challenge Cup no longer assumes the overwhelming importance it does now”
Maurice Lindsay, 1995, The Independent
As League embarks on another ‘New Beginning’ we have survived our Winter of Discontent in one piece. The settlement cannot be sustained. It’s time to Face the Future.
It is just 81 days since the curtain came down on the 2018 Rugby League season. The optimism generated from the successful England side – who enjoyed exposure on BBC Breakfast, BBC Radio 2 and on the pages of The Spectator – gave League’s ‘expansionists’ hope for the future. As ever, the focus now turns to the club game for the next ten months.
Kudos to Robert Elstone, the Chief Executive of Super League, who has pitched this season as a ‘New Beginning’ for the sport. After just eight months in charge, Elstone believes he has made changes that will foster ‘the most exciting, the most competitive, the most unpredictable Super League ever’. Those who remember ‘Every Minute Matters’ and ‘The League of the Extraordinary’ will question whether the hyperbole is just another false dawn.
Deal or No Deal?
The ‘New Beginning’ is certainly a welcome distraction from the financial issues that threaten to take us into the abyss. For League’s future is now as uncertain as the country’s. As the politicians edge towards their moment of Brexit reckoning, League has two years to prepare for its own ‘No Deal’ scenario. In 2021, Sky Sports – who have been the lifeblood of the game for almost three decades – will decide exactly how much we are worth in today’s market. We may find that Sky Sports need Rugby League as much as the German car-makers need Britain in the EU.
A more immediate concern for fans is the fate of the Challenge Cup which could become a drain on the sport’s finances. A decline in ticket sales in the 2018 final was blamed on the Catalans Dragons participation in it. To guard against future losses, the RFL asked its two brightest expansionist clubs – the Dragons and the Toronto Wolfpack – to stump up a £500,000 bond to participate in the tournament. When both refused, RFL Chief Executive Ralph Rimmer was forced to claim that it ‘had not been a PR gaffe’. Rimmer may not realise it, but he and his ‘guilty men’ have put another nail in the Cup’s coffin.
The issue has been swept under the carpet as it often is at the RFL. Thankfully the Dragons will defend the trophy they but it may well be the last time they participate. The message from the top is clear: the sport cannot afford an underdog to reach the Final. Not just an underdog, but any club who cannot sell 20,000 tickets. This, of course, is almost every team in the sport. Last year it was Catalans who had the misfortune of winning the Cup; this year it could be Salford, Huddersfield or Wakefield. We are acutely aware that cheering on an underdog could facilitate the bankrupting of the governing body. The ‘magic’ of the cup it is not.
Did anybody ‘war-game’ a scenario where Toronto and Catalans faced off against two poorly supported sides in the Semi Finals? A situation where £1million is guaranteed for one set of results and a substantial financial loss is expected for another. The validity of the result would be questioned and merely encourage the conspiracy theorists who oppose the expansion of the game at any cost. It begs the question; why would a sport run the Cup in a way that could risk such losses?
The elephant in the room is the ‘Wembley-factor’. The sport has struggled to fill the stadium for a decade and with each final that passes, the empty red seats become more noticeable. The Cup remains the sports ‘calling card’; our entry into the living rooms of millions of people for just one day a year. Even Eddie Hearn – never knowingly underselling a sport – remarked that it was ‘half-empty’. Yet the RFL announced, with pride, that the final will remain at Wembley until 2027.
For Rimmer, we can never leave for ‘‘it has been the setting for so many of the greatest matches and memories in the game’s history’. Yet the organisers of the 2021 World Cup have ignored such nostalgia and fans are already excited to see St James’s Park and the Emirates hosting our sport. Few care that we have no history there. In maintaining the myth that the new Wembley holds a special place in League’s history, Rimmer – and for that matter Robert Elstone – are afraid to challenge the sport’s ‘ethos’.
Doctrine and Ethos in the Super League
In 1979, the political scientist Henry Drucker wrote Doctrine and Ethos in the Labour Party. In it, Drucker argued Labour were ‘not simply an instrument for acquiring and using power’ but a group united by an underlying, often nostalgic interpretation of its past. This created a distinct ‘ethos’ which prevented it from adapting to the demands of an affluent working class. The nostalgic attachment to the party’s forefathers was best represented in Clause IV and the commitment to the nationalisation of industry.
Challenging Labour’s ‘ethos’ in 1994 was Tony Blair. In his first conference speech as leader he urged the party to ditch Clause IV:
“Let us have the confidence that once again we can debate new ideas, new thinking, without for ever fearing the taunt of betrayal. Let us say what we mean and mean what we say, not just what we are against, but what we are for”
There was a logic to a break with the past. Blair had been heavily influenced by a Fabian Pamphlet entitled Southern Discomfort, which highlighted how switching voters at the 1992 General Election still associated the party with decade old imagery of strikes; Arthur Scargill and the Winter of Discontent.
In 1994, League had their own ‘outsider’ in Maurice Lindsay, who was calling for the sport to have its own break with the past. As Professor Tony Collins observes in Rugby League in the Twentieth Century, Lindsay:
“‘superficially’ he fitted the Thatcherite archetype of the times, that of a self-made man seeking to refashion society in his own supposedly meritocratic image”
Lindsay had his own version of Southern Discomfort to rectify the sports ills: Framing the Future. It is a document still revered to by the games ‘modernisers’. Framing the Future, was the outcome of Global Sports Marketing’s wide-ranging review of League. In examining all aspects of the game – from attendance to facilities to the geographical positioning of each club – the results made for depressing reading. 60% of all spectators came from just four small ‘catchment’ areas; the sport was losing £3million a year and the RFL was using 47% of all its income on bailing out declining clubs.
Lindsay’s shock therapy would be mergers, a salary cap and a reduction in the number of top-flight teams. Lindsay was blessed with good fortune that Elstone will not have in 2021. The English game was the benefactor of the raging ‘Super League War’ in Australia, with Rupert Murdoch proposing a European and an Australian Competition, culminating in an end of season world play-off series. To Lindsay’s credit, he did not go into the negotiations showing his weak hand. For a sport on the verge of bankruptcy he somehow managed to turn a £50m offer from BSKYB into an £87m one.
Forward March Halted?
What did BSKYB see in League in 1995 that they won’t see in 2021? Few believe that the English game can now match the NRL. In 1994, Wigan transcended the sport and gave League national prominence. A delve into The Times archive from the period sees League feature regularly on the back pages for all the right reasons. BSKYB hoped their money would create 12 Wigan’s. It did not work out that way. Instead, Wigan fell to the level of the mid-ranking teams. A look at the Wigan squad on the first weekend of Super League shows an array of superstars unmatched in 2019:
1. Kris Radlinski, 2. Jason Robinson, 3. Va’aiga Tuigamala, 4. Gary Connolly, 5. Martin Offiah, 6. Henry Paul, 7. Shaun Edwards 25. Neil Cowie, 9. Martin Hall, 10. Terry O’Connor, 12. Mick Cassidy, 16. Scott Quinnell, 13. Andy Farrell
Despite the decline of our top sides, the names on the trophy have remained the same. Noticeably, it is the four teams deemed as ‘Super League ready’ in 1995 – in Wigan, St Helens, Bradford, Leeds – who have lifted the competition trophy. Would Calder, Cheshire, Cumbria, Humberside, Manchester, South Yorkshire, London, Paris or Toulouse have challenged the Big Four?
League missed its chance to create a ‘year zero’ for the sport and challenge some of our long held – and increasingly irrelevant – traditions. When minnows Featherstone were proposed to merge with Wakefield and Castleford, the response was as much as a rejection of Thatcherism as it was the Super League. Featherstone author Ian Clayton summed up the resistance best:
“When everything else has been taken away from us and Rugby is all we’ve got left…We must never ever give in to the big boys”
In The Times Chris Irvine encapsulated the game in 1995 as one ‘afflicted by debt, inertia and parochialism’.
For the first decade however, Super League remained a phenomenon without successful expansion or mergers. In Caplan and Doidge’s essential 2006 book Super League: The First Ten Years, the authors remark how ‘better than any other, the sport has responded to the demands of the modern leisure industry’. That a ‘New Beginning’ is required would suggest that Super League has failed in its task. We have come along way since 1996; the modern stadiums; increased attendances and a safer fan day experience. Nationally, we are struggling to maintain the pretence of being a professional sport.
If Elstone is to pull off the ‘Art of the Deal’ in 2021, he may need the Catalans Dragons and Toronto Wolfpack to take League to new audiences. Despite the financial losses from the Cup Final, the Dragons success is the greatest triumph of the Super League era. No sales pitch or media hype could match the success on the field, which will open the door to Barcelona’s Nou Camp in April, for a historic match against Wigan. It is our most radical step forward since Paris St Germain ushered in the brave new world back in 1996. The RFL are foolish to deny Toulouse and Toronto the opportunity to follow in their footsteps.
Instead, the ‘New Beginning’ seems desperately like an old one. As is a time-honoured tradition, Round One will kick off in the snow. St Helens v Wigan remains the draw, but it will be flogged to death over the course of the next ten months. If you miss this one, it’ll be here again in a few weeks. There is a growing unease that Elstone is protecting the big clubs from a genuine ‘New Beginning’. For all the talk of listening ‘to those outside of the tent’, his ‘pseudo revolution’ has given us more club fixtures at the expense of the international game.
On Saturday night, League’s new ‘marketable’ star – Blake Austin – will make his debut for Warrington against Leeds. He will no doubt sparkle. Unfortunately, few outside the tent will notice. The same evening, millions will be captivated by an International contest that pitches England against Ireland; Father against Son; and Wiganer against Wiganer. That it is the ‘other code’ reaping the rewards should inspire us to find our ‘revolutionary’ spirit again.